"When dawn spreads its paintbrush on the plain, spilling purple... ," Sons of the Pioneers theme for TV show "Wagon Train." Dawn on the mythic Santa Fe Trail, New Mexico, looking toward Raton from Cimarron. -- Clarkphoto. A curmudgeon artist's musings melding metaphors and journalism, for readers in more than 150 countries.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Canoe trip

Early watercolor

I sold my red Old Town Discovery canoe yesterday, ending a trip of many years in the 15-foot, eight-inch, 80 pound craft. It's been sitting on sawhorses in the back yard for the past four years, but selling it brought back many memories.

The canoe was my escape from human time when I bought it almost 15 years ago. The problem with the canoe, other than its weight, was that there isn't much what I'd call canoe water around here--you know, gently flowing, clear water. I'd used it several times at Lake Arcadia, often getting up before "first crack" of dawn, to be out there when the light came and the birds woke. And I've gone down the Cimarron River from Crescent to Guthrie; and down the North Canadian River from El Reno to Lake Overholser. That was the last trip. I've wanted to go from south Oklahoma City to Norman on the Canadian, but just never got around to it.

I've got photos of me and the canoe somewhere that I'll post, but I can find them right now.

Let me tell you what you learn in a canoe.

Time is different. You are in nature's time, not man's time. You are not in the water, but on the water. What affects the water affects you...wind, current, weather.

Going down a river by yourself, you find how nature lives--especially the birds. The river is isolated from the "civilized" world above its banks. You might hear livestock or oil pumps or traffic on bridges, but they're distant. Even in the muddy water of Oklahoma rivers, you move more slowly. If the wind is blowing against you, it's a lot of work to keep in the stream of the current. If the sun is out, it's more intense.

And you see birds and wildlife you'd never see otherwise. Herons fishing, owls, hawks, deer, turtles, a few snakes, dragonflies backlit by the sun. They live by the time of nature--living on the river for food and protection...day after day, unhurried by the ticks of a human's clock. That's why it calms you to be on the river...you have to pay attention to the current in front of you, you cherish the shade of trees and clouds, you have to watch for snags and other obstacles, and you can float silently downstream and almost into the midst of the waterfowl, especially if you're upwind.You learn the value of silence--time to think, to wonder, to be yourself. The only music is from the gurgle of the water, the sounds of the birds, the breeze in the trees. You also learn that distances in a canoe are a lot farther in time than it looks on a map.

To get ready for such a trip you first buy the topographical maps to plot and estimate time. Then you scout out the area for where you can "put in" and "take out," places where there's a slope gentle enough to get the canoe from off the top of the car down to the water, and then up again when you reach your destination. then you put together some kind of flexible container for some ice and food to store under on of the seats. You have to have binoculars and a camera. Some kind of watch. A compass isn't necessary but fun. Towels. Toilet paper. A hat, and sunglasses. Plenty of drinking water. Then you have to have a friend or partner to drop you off, and later pick you up.

Getting a heavy canoe on and off a vehicle is a chore. I have at least one gash on my nose from one episode, and one car had more than one gouge in it. But early in the morning, once you slip the canoe off, get down to water's edge, load it, and push off, the world changes--you are alone. You stop along a sand bar to eat, or pause to spend time watching birds, or to take a biology break.

On the trip down the North Canadian, Susan and I figured we'd make it in a day. We didn't. the water was shallow and we spent a lot of time walking in the water, pulling the canoe. But we did tip over and ruined her cell phone. We didn't quite get to near Yukon before we just gave up, hot and tired and exhausted, after putting in at the river where it crosses under US 81 north of El Reno. I tied the canoe to a log, and we scrambled up a sandy vertical 30-foot bank to start walking till we found a phone, called Susan's father, Jay Henry and he came and got us.  The next day Susan dropped off Mark Hanebutt and I. The canoe was still there, even though the day before I could have cared less. It took us a good six hours to get from Yukon to the old US 66 bridge at the north end of Overholser. 

It's different on a lake, usually because there's more wind, and less current. But if you're there early, you can glide into the shallow water, among dead trees, up the narrow channels, and see even more wildlife, including beaver. At Arcadia one fall, I got within 40 feet of a Osprey in a dead tree, eating a fish it had caught. I was upwind, and moved straight at it. I felt like I could touch it. The bald eagles were more cautious and stayed pretty much on the other shore. Then you hear the Canada geese coming in for landing. The honking and the sound of their wings is powerful. If you're still, they'll give you a real show of grace incarnate.

You feel like you're exploring...and you are, exploring yourself. It takes little imagination to put yourself in the wilderness of 200 years ago with trappers and adventurers who also lived by nature's time.

When you come back to civilization at the end of the day, you're tired...paddling and lifting and fighting wind takes it's toll. But the journey is refreshing to the soul.

Why did I sell that canoe?


  1. I love that painting--can you put it back on the wall now....:)

  2. Clark your words render many appreciated images.

    I especially love this:
    Time is different. You are in nature's time, not man's time. You are not in the water, but on the water. What affects the water affects you...wind, current, weather.

    I love to be in a place where time is different...especially in nature! I have rafted down the Snake River in Jackson Hole, Montana - and paddled a canoe on many wonderful waterways. Eagles followed my raft in Montana. On a little water way in SC - the Chankahank..I think, the cormorants stood on rocks and held out their wings and swayed from side to side to dry themselves. It was so beautiful. Thanks for this wonderful piece. I love where it took me.


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